The Kukama have been evangelized since the time of the Jesuit reductions in Maynas in the 17th and 18th centuries. Since then, the presence of the church has been intermittent. Between 1768, when the Jesuits left, until the Augustinians arrived in 1901, there was a period during which rural priests of the doctrinas provided continuity for Christianity in the region despite very difficult personal and structural situations. Clearly there were always few religious for such a large territory with such great challenges for indigenous peoples.
But let’s focus a bit. We were in the middle of a course for Animadores Cristianos (leaders of Catholic communities in villages) in Peru’s lower Marañón River Valley, talking about marriage. The Animadores had raised an important concern: the possibility of allowing them to accompany people who request the sacrament of marriage as they are agonizing on their deathbed. For the Kukama, marrying is a way of dying in peace. Prolonged agony means the person who is ill cannot die—he or she needs something. And often, what is needed is marriage.
That was the context, but what followed took us by surprise. After several days of discussing the topic of marriage, one Animador stood up in the middle of the group and recounted the following: A woman in a neighboring community had been unable to die. She had a partner, but he did not want to marry. The woman insisted on marrying, so her relatives went to visit a man who had been her partner in the past, to see if he would be willing to marry her on her deathbed. He also declined. The woman had had another partner before him, but that man had died, so it was impossible for her to marry him.
The dying woman insisted on marrying, and her relatives were desperate. The sense of unease spread throughout the community. The family sought out the Animador Cristiano, who agreed to witness the marriage. But there was no man willing to marry the woman. What could they do? The solution was simple: the woman married a broomstick. Once our initial surprise passed, we understood that this was a very delicate matter under extreme circumstances.
We cannot understand this situation without realizing that it poses a challenge of the first magnitude. For a Westerner, there is no marriage under such circumstances—there can be neither consent nor consummation. For the Kukama people, however, when a person is dying, those are secondary considerations. What the woman and her relatives sought was for her to die in peace and to leave this world without having to disquiet her family members after her death (through dreams, noises or other disturbances).
This is not a mere anecdote; it reflects the thinking of indigenous peoples. We began by saying that the complexity of matters such as this cannot be addressed in such short essays. Underlying this situation is a very important concept of the indigenous person. Unless we ask what it means to “be a person,” we cannot understand what is at stake. Although to Westerners the broomstick is an object, for indigenous peoples it becomes a subject, which makes it possible to hold a marriage ceremony. Ideas about what is “beyond” this life also come into play. Without marriage, the woman cannot die, and her agony is prolonged. If she cannot wed, the woman’s spirit will disturb the relatives who did not help her marry. Her family therefore did everything possible to enable her to marry.
This raises many questions, some of which have no answer. This situation occurred after nearly 400 years of evangelization of the Kukama people. Indigenous peoples continue to pose a considerable challenge for the Church. It is not just a matter of preaching; it is important to understand what indigenous peoples do with that preaching. It is easy to see that these are two different ways of understanding life. We advocate having historical patience, using intelligence to understand what is happening, and accompanying Christian families in unprecedented intercultural situations.
Our impression is that all missionaries, throughout history, have encountered situations with no solution, aporias. Usually no one talks about them. We consider that strategy to be superficial. First, because it does not allow due consideration of the situation. Second, because it does not allow for discussion and discernment in community. Third, because it does not take indigenous peoples seriously. It is true that these situations raise complex questions, but that is no excuse for remaining silent. Perhaps there is no response, but the very fact of raising the question strikes us as an act of great honesty.
We therefore encourage others to engage in discussion and to present their own experiences and hypotheses, to discuss the errors we have all committed and possible alternatives and ways of accompanying. If the pan-Amazonian synod does not raise underlying issues and try to point the way, insofar as possible, to at least some general areas of work, the effort will be in vain. It will be simply a meeting of experts, with no real impact on daily life.
Before closing, we would like to note that this is not simply a matter of rationalizing, but of “reading with the heart.” For indigenous peoples, the heart is the seat of reason and of feelings. The two are intimately entwined. Imposing silence, appealing to the law of the Church, will not avoid these types of situations. Nor will it enable us to accompany. In the depths of our lives, the Mystery accompanies us always.
Miguel Angel Cadenas
Augustinians – Iquitos (Peru)
Traduced by: Barbara Fraser.